Is there truthiness to his ’08 bid?

Comedian Stephen Colbert raises his arms as he speaks to an audience at the University of South Carolina after a ceremony where he received a key to the city of Columbia, S.C.
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

The more late-night television satirist Stephen Colbert jokes and romps his way through the early campaign season with his almost-real candidacy for president of the United States, the more some folks are intent on taking him seriously.

It was no surprise when fans of Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report reacted giddily to news that their hero would try to get on the ballot for the South Carolina primary. But who knew that Internet pundits and nearly every major media outlet in the country would weigh in?

Some wanted to keep the discussion on the light and narrow. Which running mate should Colbert choose: Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) or Russian President Vladimir V. Putin?

But others had sharp and much more sober questions. Would he draw votes from the “real” candidates? Should the mainstream media be wasting so much time on a phantom candidacy? Does schtick count as constitutionally protected, and therefore unregulated, speech?

Someone who went by the name Sil 369 on, the news aggregation website, asked: “Who would become president? His character? Or his actual self? Really, I’m curious.”

The 43-year-old late-night star is not the first comedian to run for president. But he may be the first to benefit from the wildly echoing discussion spawned by the Internet -- and the recent release of a book, Colbert’s “I Am America (and So Can You!)”

If a campaign as fantastical as Colbert’s can have a crossroads, it comes today, when the entertainer must register to be included on January primary ballots in South Carolina.

The near-candidate and Comedy Central executives aren’t commenting on their next move.

But South Carolina officials said that as of Wednesday evening, they had not received the paperwork or filing fees -- $2,500 or 3,000 signatures for the Democrats, $35,000 for the Republicans -- to have Colbert join either of the parties’ ballots.

It’s been four decades since Pat Paulsen, then a regular on “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour,” first ran for president. Paulsen, who died in 1997, liked to tag along with the legitimate candidates, never dropping his morose campaign persona.

Colbert launched his eponymous talk show character on “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart,” before Comedy Central spun off the half-hour “Colbert Report,” airing Monday through Thursday after “The Daily Show.”

The faux right-wing provocateur -- eyebrow chronically arched, chair constantly swiveling to receive his next close-up -- broached a possible presidential candidacy in the summer. “I have a face that was born to be on money,” he said on the show in mid-September, but added that he was looking for “a sign, some sign” that he should run.

A knight came onstage, referred to him as “my lord” and offered him a sword. Colbert didn’t immediately take the bait, but remained a “presidential considerer.”

Then, on Oct. 16, he announced he had “heard the call.” The Charleston native told his nationwide audience of about 1.3 million that he planned to campaign in South Carolina, adding: “I defy any other candidate to pander more to the people of South Carolina. Those beautiful, beautiful people.”

The television personality may keep joking, but even a satiric entry into the race has sent campaign experts scrambling to the law books to ponder how the Federal Election Commission might respond to his candidacy.

In general, federal law prohibits corporations such as Viacom Inc., which owns Comedy Central, from using corporate funds to advocate directly for a candidate. That also would prohibit Colbert from campaigning directly on the dime of Doritos, which he frequently touts as a sponsor.

But, election law expert Richard L. Hasen notes, there’s an exemption for “any news story, commentary or editorial distributed through the facilities of any broadcasting station . . . unless such facilities are owned or controlled by any political party, political committee or candidate.”

Hasen, a Loyola Law School professor, said he’s not sure Colbert qualifies for that exemption although, in a lively blog debate, other law professors have disagreed.

Colbert’s program appeared to take the question seriously when it engaged a prestigious election law firm, Wiley Rein of Washington.

Colbert showed a copy of a letter on the air in which the firm advises against using corporate sponsorship “to directly fund campaign activities.”

Colbert treated the issue with slightly less respect. He pledged “to respect federal election laws in the same way I respect the ‘must shower before swimming’ rule at the Y.”

He regularly makes sport of the distinction between Stephen Colbert, host, and Stephen Colbert, presidential candidate -- even dividing the screen with a red line to speak as one, then ducking to the other side to speak as the other.

In a faux nod to the Federal Election Commission, he redesignated his corporate sponsorship as supporting campaign coverage rather than the candidacy itself, as in the “Stephen Colbert, Hail to the Cheese, Nacho Cheese Doritos 2008 Presidential Campaign COVERAGE.”

One Republican polling firm showed Colbert (at 2.3%) drawing more support nationally than Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico and Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, although the differences could be statistically insignificant, given the poll’s 5-percentage-point margin of error.

Nonetheless, Colbert’s candidacy has drawn attention from most of the nation’s major mainstream news organizations. Tim Russert peppered him with confrontational questions on “Meet the Press.”

The offered a lengthy analysis and strategy, aimed in part at the “drunken college student” demographic. A New York Times online editorial cheered “the sheer fun” of the Colbert candidacy, while hoping it did not “end up muddying the campaign finance laws.”

Others are not amused by the media’s amusement. Online commentator Eric Boehlert of liberal Media Matters for America chastised the mainstream media’s inattention to serious issues, in pursuit of trivia.

“The press already seems to do everything it can to avoid covering campaign substance,” Boehlert wrote.

South Carolina Democratic Party Executive Director Joe Werner said he had been assured by Colbert’s associates that he would register by today’s noon deadline to make the ballot.

Werner said a candidate can run in only one party’s primary.

State Republican Party Chairman Katon Dawson agreed that it was unlikely that Colbert would pony up the $35,000 to secure a spot on his party’s ballot.

“I’ve seen nothing,” Dawson said by cellphone as he operated a forklift at his auto parts store in Columbia. “I’ve seen nothing at all, not American money, not Monopoly money, not Euros, not Francs.”

Dawson said he would welcome Colbert to the ballot. But “it’s time to either fish or cut bait, is how we would say it in South Carolina.”